Business leaders, managers as well as workspace designers put increasing effort into creating spaces where employees can not only work to the best of their ability, but where they also feel more motivated, happy and engaged. And with the rapid evolution of workplace design, the available design toolbox is wast. However, very often decision makers choose to make ‘educated’ guesses about what’s best for the users, rather than asking them upfront. They take enormous risks, namely that the space won’t work for their employees, or that their employees won’t work the space. And beyond that, they miss out on the broad range of benefits of engaging users in the design process.
The two sides of the story
I often hear from business leaders who are managing their company’s impending relocation that they have engaged the best workplace designers and specialist consultants to help them create a great new workspace. These leaders know their companies inside out, and thus also know what’s best for their people. They go through extensive conversations with key stakeholders, and together they are developing a detailed and well-considered design brief for the new office. After all this, they trust that the new design will work well, and that staff will be ready to adapt to new ways of working. It sounds quite promising, doesn’t it?
Well, here is the other side of the same story … When casually talking to people employed somewhere, I often hear that their office is going to be relocated. They don’t know much about what’s going to happen; it’s all being looked after by management. Eventually these employees will move into a new space and then they will find out what it’s like. They hope that they will like the new space, and that it will make work easier for them. They also hope that they won’t be forced to work in a way they don’t want to … When talking to these people, while I see signs of curious anticipation, I also see concern. And not even a hint of excitement.
If things don’t work out, the consequences can be costly. It’s actually quite common that – despite careful planning – staff don’t use the new space as intended; instead, they try to hold on to old ways of working. When people don’t appreciate their new environment, or when they feel that the changes have been imposed on them and can’t see how they can personally benefit, morale can drop significantly and some people may even leave. Remedying these issues can be difficult – if indeed possible. [Here is a related story: How workplace design can smooth out cultural differences]
I’m perplexed whenever I hear either side of this story, as I just can’t get my head around how either business leaders or workplace specialists can ignore the importance of engaging users from early on in the design process. Many of these decision makers already use similar strategies in other areas of their businesses: they develop in-demand products and services by asking their market what they need and regularly seeking feedback.
Of course, workplace users are not experts either in design or in business strategy, so it would be unwise to let them make all the key decisions about how to spend the big dollars budgeted for the new office fitout. But engaging employees in conversations about their new workspace can in fact help the design team come up with better solutions. And there are also many other benefits that not only contribute to a successful relocation, but also to the ongoing success of the organisation.
1. People share insights about how they could work better
Your employees know your organisation better than any external consultants, and also have different perspectives from leaders and managers. They may see opportunities and challenges not apparent to management, and can answer questions which are critical to informing the design that no-one else can.
For example: What motivates and inspires staff? What makes them feel trusted and trusting? What difficulties do they face on a daily basis? What causes them discomfort and stress? How do they need to think and feel in order to do their best work? What kinds of spaces energise them and ignite their passion? What sort of environment would resonate with who they are and make them feel they belong?
2. People come up with unique design ideas
There is always merit in engaging non-experts in discussions about design (or other specialist subjects for that matter), since their views are not biased as a result of their education and history, and they typically have no preconceived ideas about how things should be done.
Employees can bring a fresh perspective, share original ideas and come up with unique design solutions. I’m pleasantly surprised, time after time, how well employees from all sorts of backgrounds understand the role of the work environment, and how creative they are when it comes to solving workspace-related problems.
3. People learn about the company
To create a bespoke work environment, the design team will need to understand your company’s culture, values and brand, its business model and strategy, as well as its operational systems and processes. This sort of information can easily be provided by higher management; nevertheless, it’s worthwhile to also ask employees to describe the company’s ‘why’, ‘what’ and ‘how’ from their own perspective.
These conversations often reveal that employees don’t actually see the full picture. However, just by contemplating such questions and discussing them with their peers, they can learn a lot about the company. Sometimes they can even find ways to make improvements, and these new ideas can then feed back into the design.
4. People learn about the new workspace
By participating in a series of facilitated conversations, employees will naturally become more familiar with the design of their new work environment well before the relocation. They will understand how the space functions – why it’s designed the way it is, what can be changed and adapted, and how it can help them work more effectively. Not only will they become well-equipped to use the space to its best potential; they will also learn to better appreciate the new workspace, including those aspects that they were not able to influence.
5. People become invested in the changes
As a workplace strategist, whenever I have conversations with users about their workspace – exploring what works and what doesn’t work in their current space, and how the new space could be better – I see growing enthusiasm. They start to notice exciting opportunities. On top of that, they get the sense that their ideas are being heard and considered, and that they are actually in a position to shape their workspace to their own needs and personal taste.
Gradually, they become invested in the change process and also become more open to adapting some of their work habits. This reduces the need for running change management programmes, and dramatically increases the chance that the transition will be rolled out successfully – i.e. that people will use the new space as intended.
6. People develop a sense of responsibility and ownership
Employees who are involved in the creation of their work environment tend to see their workspace as their own, and understand that how well the space serves them is in part their own responsibility. Therefore, they are more tolerant of minor annoyances, and when facing major issues they are more likely to actively look for a solution rather than just complaining. (In contrast, workers with no influence over where and how they work tend to see themselves as being on the receiving end of workplace-related problems, and so disengage from addressing them.)
Employees with a sense of ownership also tend to excel at other areas of work; for example, they are more motivated, more self-sufficient, and more adaptable to change.
7. People will be more proactive in the use the new space
A high-performance workspace offers a number of choices to users; it supports different types of meetings and work activities, allows people to pick the most suitable tools and technology to their tasks, and enables them to constantly evolve the way they work. For these reasons, today’s best workspaces are highly flexible and adaptable. But these kinds of spaces can only be truly effective if people are willing and able to use them proactively.
Conversations about work and the workspace will stimulate staff members to consciously think about the relationship between the physical environment and their work outcomes. They will learn to see the space as one of their work tools, and get prepared to rearrange the space to fit their needs as required.
8. People will feel valued and trusted
Involving employees in open and honest conversations about their new workspace helps them feel that management wants the best for them and genuinely cares about their experience at work. And when people feel looked after, they also tend to care about the organisation more and are happy to work harder.
What’s more, knowing that their opinions are valued, employees feel more trusted by their superiors and in turn themselves become more trusting. Trust is a key factor in many aspects of performance – including knowledge exchange, collaboration and innovation – and is one of the universal qualities that make a workplace a great place to work.
9. People will become more engaged and empowered
Leaders of the most sought-after workplaces know how important it is to treat their employees as adults. Offering people choices enhances their sense of control, and helps them become more engaged and empowered. Employees who are able to influence their work environment tend to be more motivated, more committed to the organisation, and more willing to go the extra mile.
Businesses with an engaged work community are much better prepared to compete and to navigate through challenging times. Research by the Hay Group indicates that ‘companies with highly engaged people outperform firms with the most disengaged folks – by 54% in employee retention, by 89% in customer satisfaction, and by fourfold in revenue growth’.
10. People will be happier
Asking people what they want and then giving it to them makes them happier, for many reasons. People are naturally more satisfied in spaces that incorporate their ideas. Also, people tend to be happier in environments which reflect something about themselves – which is a likely outcome of successful user engagement. Interestingly, when people can identify with their environment, they also feel physically more comfortable, and feel more positive about their work in general.
Happiness improves all major aspects of performance, including people’s intelligence, creativity, energy levels, and resilience. According to a Harvard study, in a positive state the brain is 31% more productive than when negative, neutral or stressed. Happy people also make 37% more sales, and work 19% more accurately.
11. People will work more productively
Studies show strong correlation between user engagement and various forms of productivity, such as information processing, attention to detail, speed and accuracy of work. Dr. Craig Knight at the University of Exeter has conducted extensive research to study the influence of the work environment and user engagement on employee productivity, and the results showed that when employees have participated in the development of their own work environments, productivity increases dramatically – by as much as 32%!
The right level of involvement
Allowing users to have a say about their new workspace doesn’t mean that everyone should participate in every discussion, or that all decisions should be handed to users – that would be neither practical nor useful. However, users should be given the opportunity to influence those elements of the design that are meaningful to them, where their opinions are truly valuable, and where their suggestions can actually be implemented.
It can be a good idea, for example, to ask them what type of chair they would like to sit on, what sort of decor they would like to be surrounded by, or what kind of ambience they would enjoy in the break space.
One company I know has chosen the location and the style of its new office (i.e. a flexible open-plan space with a domestic feel) based on staff requests. Another one asked users about what organisational vision and values their new workspace should reflect, and in accordance with the answers, created an environment which communicated endless possibilities, inclusiveness, and caring about social and environmental causes.
There are numerous channels to engage users: workshops, interactive presentations, informal conversations, surveys, questionnaires, etc. It’s best to seek user input right at the beginning of the project – before the formulation of the design brief – and then to ask for feedback at key points during the design process.
Try to get clear about your employees’ decision-making authority early on. It’s important that you don’t accidentally mislead users, giving them the impression that they have greater influence than they actually do. Don’t ask their opinions about issues that are already decided. Don’t offer them token decisions. And perhaps most importantly, after giving people choice, do not criticise or override their decisions – that would likely make them resentful and also lead to a dramatic drop in their performance.
It’s inevitable that a few of the ideas that people come up with cannot be acted on, or that no consensus will be achieved about certain issues. But this is not a problem as long as your people feel heard and their input is acknowledged.
This process doesn’t need to be as complicated as it might sound. Committing to transparency, and communicating openly and often, will help establish a great level of trust and respect between all parties. In this climate, the design and decision-making process will be more seamless and will more likely produce a workspace that will bring out the best in people and the organisation.